Eight months ago, when owner Kha Bui decided to strike out on his own after many years working in his brother Ahn Bui's restaurant Mekong, he took his sister along to cook and, with another former Mekong waiter, opened Da Lat a little farther up Broad Street.
High in the mountains of Vietnam and surrounding an enormous lake, the town of Da Lat, with its turn-of-the-century French villas and replica of the Eiffel tower, is a favorite vacation spot for the Vietnamese. Is Da Lat a vacation compared with Mekong? Only Bui knows for sure, but with its smaller size and decidedly relaxed atmosphere, Da Lat has a different vibe from the expansive and bustling Mekong.
At first glance, Da Lat appears to be just a doorway in the T.J. Maxx strip mall. And then, upon closer examination, a doorway with an aquarium behind it. Behind the aquarium, however, is a long room studded with little chandeliers and decorated in typical Asian style modern Asian restaurant style, that is.
Unlike the jazzy, retro red-and-black menu covers handed to you when you sit down, the interior could be any Chinese, Japanese, Korean or Thai restaurant you might have visited before, and the menu itself bears a strong resemblance to that of Mekong. Bui isn't making a radical departure from the other family enterprise here, and fortunately, his standards are just as high as his brother's.
The crispy spring rolls are light and grease-free, stuffed with a seductive ground pork filling. Banh cuon cha lua sports decadently good fried shallots sprinkled over slices of a kind of Vietnamese pork roll; a large heaping of lettuce strips, long cucumber strings and bean sprouts hides the thin rice ravioli that wraps the deeply seasoned ground pork and dried mushrooms inside. The shrimp toast, or banh mi tom chien, is packed full of shrimp paste sandwiched between two dark bread slices, deep-fried and edged in sesame seeds.
The pho tai is a rich beef broth brimming with the fragrance of star anise and loaded with rare sliced beef, rice noodles, cilantro and scallions, while the contrasting hu tieu my-tho, chicken-broth-based and slightly sweeter, combines shrimp, chicken and both sliced and ground pork with noodles.
The gao xao sa ot slaps down its chicken with a spicy hot lemongrass sauce and long lines of sautéed onions. The ca chien xao mang is made of crisp squares of boneless rainbow trout blanketed with an intense ginger sauce along with sliced bamboo and the odd little mushrooms found only in Asian dishes.
The true standout, though, isn't even on the menu and was recommended by Bui when we asked for his favorite dish. The clay-pot-style fish consists of tender, boneless pieces of fish somehow miraculously caramelized mahogany without being overcooked in a garlicky black pepper sauce. These sweetly focused morsels of soft fish melt practically without the need to chew them, and they had me thinking about them after I left. On the menu you'll find clay-pot-style tofu, chicken and pork as well. Ask for the fish.
Lunch specials are smaller portions of the dinner entrées served along with a spring roll and a choice of two superlative soups, a pungent hot-and-sour and a steaming wonton with the thinnest wrappers available in town. With a good selection of beers, including hard-to-find Chinese beer Tsingtao, a few unremarkable wines and a lot of fancy-schmancy umbrella drinks, Da Lat has covered all the bases. The diners at this restaurant, which is busy at night and slightly less so during the day, seem to agree.
The crowd inside is frankly one of the most diverse and cross-cultural mixes I've seen in a Richmond restaurant, and it proves that good food waltzes with an offhand grace across racial, cultural and economic divides. Perhaps Da Lat's appeal is aided by the superlative service and Bui's easy charm, but I know it's the lasting memories of garlic and nuoc mam that linger and inevitably draw a first-timer back to try it all over again. S
Da Lat Vietnamese Cuisine
9125 W. Broad St.
Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.- 9:30 p.m.
Friday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.